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Ekalaka vs. Ekalaka: MT Supreme Court case could decide who owns the fire department
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Ekalaka vs. Ekalaka: MT Supreme Court case could decide who owns the fire department

For more than 100 years, the tiny town of Ekalaka and its fire department worked together without trouble. But over the last three years, the two groups have battled over a question that has landed in Montana Supreme Court: who owns the fire trucks?

The titles to the trucks and the fire building are in the town's name. Yet the money used to buy the fire equipment was raised separately by the fire department.

In 2018, the town took legal action against the Ekalaka Volunteer Fire Department (EVFD) and its recently established free-standing corporation after the department protested decisions made by the town, which claimed the firefighters and their funds are part of the local government. 

Ekalaka, with a population of about 300, lies almost alone in the far southeast corner of Montana. The town is closer to South Dakota than it is the nearest Montana city of Baker 35 miles away with a population of about 1,700. And, it's a long, long way — 460 miles — from Helena, where the state high court will settle the heated dispute. 

The fire department claims to have existed for years before the town incorporated in 1914, pointing to its own constitution and board of trustees.

After the fire department lost its claim in Carter County District Court, it filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court where a decision is pending.

Within the hundreds of pages of legal documents in the case, there isn't much the parties agree on. 

“The EVFD Board of Trustees has been the sole decision maker on the sale and purchase of equipment and apparatus and paid for fuel, supplies, training, personal protective equipment and educational materials from its own accounts even though those expenses are, for the benefit of the Town but provided by EVFD,” the fire department states in its appeal.

The EVFD claims that in the past the town would draft contracts with it, which would be needless if the department was a entity of the town. The town has also forced the fire department to take out its own loans for new equipment, money that would have to be repaid by the department, the filings claim.

Roughly $800 from Ekalaka is sent to the EVFD yearly.

At the same time, the town holds the titles of all the vehicles and insures them. Ekalaka claims the volunteer department has always been an entity of the local government.

“The EVFD is a municipal fire department established in 1915, the status of which was determined as a matter of law no later than 1920. The Appellant's claims are a cynical attempt to take an emergency department from the Town and its citizens, and that attempt must not be rewarded,” the town counters in the claim.

The fire department raised roughly $130,000 in donations for building a new fire station, but would not transfer the money from its bank account to the town account, according to filings. The two parties do have separate bank accounts.

When “personal animosity” boiled over between the two entities in 2017, a firefighter from EVFD threatened to remove all keys from all fire vehicles. Another member told the town council the fire department would not respond to emergencies, and threatened to sue the town.

However, there have been no reports of those threats being followed through with.

The legal standoff has halted construction of the new fire hall, which would be able to house a hand-me-down fire engine donated from Glendive. The truck is too big to fit into the current fire hall and must be parked outside, the Ekalaka Eagle newspaper has reported. 

Century-old dispute

The court arguments focus on the 1915 incorporation of Ekalaka. In documents then, the town recognized an “old fire department” but also contracted a new fire department to work for the city. This is where the divide begins.

“As far back as we can find documentation, the fire department has been independent of the town,” EVFD lawyer Courtney Jo Lawellin told The Gazette.

The volunteer department argues this agreement with the town was made to an outside organization. The town would provide the resources, and the department would in turn protect the region from fires and provide other emergency support.

The volunteer fire department filed further documents in 1924, 1958 and 1976 that suggest the town leased the fire hall to EVFD. The town also said these documents, which did not have an attached affidavit, should not be considered in court. The district judge agreed.

“The Corporation's arguments are only so much smoke,'' writes the Town of Ekalaka’s lawyer, Rich Batterman in an appellate brief. “In this case, there is no fire to be put out.”

The volunteer fire department's final appellant brief is due on Sept. 1. From there, the Montana Supreme Court will make a declaratory judgement later in the fall.

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